Brief on the Education Sector across Africa

Otavio Veras

Otavio Veras, Research Associate of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies


Education is the central piece that propels economic growth. A country can be rich in natural resources, but if its population lacks education, it will continue to be poor and dependent on foreign support. Singapore is probably the best example of this statement: a city-state, with no natural resources, but ranking 3rd as the largest GDP per capita in the world, according to the IMF[1]. This achievement would never have been reached if education had not spread throughout all the socio-economic layers of its population since the country’s independence in 1965.

High levels of education paved the way for Singapore to evolve from a village to a metropolis, but this recipe was already known for a long time. Broad access to schooling was first implemented by the Prussian government in 1793[2]. This decision was replicated around the globe and, in the beginning of the 19th century, a total of 2.3 million children were enrolled in primary schools throughout the world[3]. This number reached nearly 184 million in 2012[4].

Since the beginning of human civilization, knowledge has been passed down generations, and for a long time this transfer took very different forms, such as through the family, songs and the arts, cultural and religious institutions, community work, and apprenticeships in arts and trades. These systems are still present today, but mass education evolved to a point where every country on the planet has a schooling system. Having access to it, or not, affects the development of every child. From the early age until adulthood, access to good education largely dictates the socio-economic prospects of every individual and, consequently, of a country.

Moving from Singapore to the countries in Africa, the gap in education is staggering. This article will present a picture of the state of education in the continent of Africa and how it is placed in a global context.

Pre-Primary Education in Africa

From the very early years of a child’s life, schooling plays a fundamental role in the process of building the personality, developing the ability to interact with others, and expanding cognitive skills. Habits and attitudes acquired during the early childhood are deeply embedded in the child’s mind. Curiosity and creativity are more prominent and more free of barriers at this stage of life. Hence, a good pre-primary education has lasting effects in an individual’s life and is likely to affect the development of a child all the way into adulthood.

Children who attend a good pre-school and primary school, have more chances of succeeding academically in later stages of school even after accounting for the students’ socio-economic status[5]. The quality of schooling at this stage has more impact on children’s academic progress than their gender or family income. A high quality pre-school followed by an academically effective primary school, gives children’s development a significant boost. It affects both the child’s social behaviour and intellectual development[6]. In addition, the efficiency of entire education systems can be increased by improving children’s readiness to learn, resulting in less repetition and dropout.

Between 1999 and 2012, pre-primary enrolment in Sub-Saharan Africa rose by almost two and half times. On average, however, only 20% of young children were enrolled in 2012. Only seven countries in the region achieved a gross enrolment ratio of 80% or more in pre-primary education, namely Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Mauritius, Angola, Capo Verde, the Seychelles and South Africa. Only 2% were enrolled in Mali[7].

Primary Education in Africa

The current state of primary education in the developing countries shows a drastic contrast to the level of achievements reached in the developed world. On average, the level of education of developing countries, in terms of number of years in school and levels of achievement, equates to that found 100 years ago in many of western countries[8]. Although Africa has made great progress in primary education in the past decade, the continent still lags behind when compared to the rest of the world.

UNESCO statistics show that 30 million of the world’s 58 million out-of-school, primary age children live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa’s school age population is growing faster than in any other region – up 29% since 2000. This translates into an extra 49 million children and compares with a fall of almost 10% in the rest of the world. The result is a strain of the educational system on the African continent. A child that manages to enter primary education, will probably find an overcrowded class in an understaffed institution.

Education is critical for development and helps lay the foundations for social well-being, economic growth and security, gender equality and peace. Making primary education mandatory and free are the most basic measures that a government can take in order to increase the overall educational level of a population.

Some African countries have achieved substantial progress in universalizing primary education. Burundi, Ethiopia, Morocco, Mozambique and Tanzania have shown improvement in several indicators of primary schooling. In these countries, gender and income disparities in school access have reduced and net enrolment ratios and primary attainment rates have significantly improved in the past decade.

Many countries in Sub-Sahara Africa face challenges that are almost non-existent in most of the developed countries. Out of 33 conflict-affected countries in 2012, 13 were in sub-Saharan Africa. Young people in many of these places end up being recruited as child soldiers or slaves.

Although the odds are against the children in regions affected by conflict, two countries in Africa managed to emerge from a chaotic past and improve their educational system: Rwanda and Sierra Leone. The latter began its slow climb out of a 11-year political conflict and saw substantial improvement in education after 2005. Rwanda, which had a ratio of around 80% of net enrolment by 1999, reached almost 100% by 2012. These countries adopted some important policies that largely contributed to this achievement. Education expenditure was increased, school fees were abolished, and there was a large investment in school construction and an emphasis on gender equity.

Going past the first steps of institutionalizing mandatory and free primary education, other initiatives also showed good results across Africa. Cash transfers, school feeding programmes and take-home rations, increasing the supply of schools and classrooms, and investing in health and infrastructure, are some examples.

These policies, when implemented consistently and effectively, manage to greatly improve school enrolment rates. Examples of this are observed in Burundi, whose net enrolment ratio in primary education increased from less than 41% in 2000 to 94% in 2010. Niger and Guinea also saw significant improvement in this indicator in this period: from 27% to almost 64% in Niger, and from 42% to 76% in Guinea.

With the right policies, even countries that experienced significant population growth managed to increase primary education enrolment. Burkina Faso and Mozambique, where the school age population grew by at least 50% between 1999 and 2012, showed an increase in their net enrolment ratio by over 66%[9]. Countries such as Ethiopia and Tanzania were able to reduce out-of-school numbers by over three million each in the first half of the decade after 2000[10].

Secondary Education in Africa

Primary school in Africa seems to be in the right track, although the path to an ideal scenario is still a long way to go. Secondary school, however, faces even more difficult challenges. Secondary school enrolment rates in Africa are the lowest in the world. In 2013, just 28% of youths were enrolled in secondary school, leaving more than 90 million teenagers outside of the system[11].

The goal of expanding access to secondary education is paramount and will certainly take more time to reach than universalizing primary schooling. In this process there is usually a split between the poor and the rich, which is less prominent in primary education.

As access to secondary schooling becomes gradually universal, it is usually obtained first by advantaged groups and only later by the poor. Even when low income, minority language or other marginalized groups achieve access to lower secondary education, further differentiation is likely between higher and lower quality schools, sometimes through the emergence of private schools. Further differentiation will also likely appear in the transition to the next level; unequal access to lower secondary means upper secondary remains or becomes a source of inequality. This pattern is found even in countries that promise educational opportunities to children, irrespective of their ability to pay[12].

Rwanda is an example where this problem has been tackled. In 2000, only 15% of the poorest adolescents who reached the end of primary school made the transition into lower secondary school. This figure jumped to 58% in 2010.

Rwanda also expanded lower secondary schooling, with the gross enrolment ratio more than tripling since 1999 to reach 37% in 2012. The introduction of a nine-year basic education cycle and the elimination of fees for lower secondary school, boosted the number of lower secondary students by 63% between 2008 and 2010. The government is now working towards 12 years of free education for all[13].

Similar to universalizing primary education, making secondary education compulsory and free, increases the ratio of enrolment of students. However, this does not necessarily decrease the number of young people engaging at work. Many children who continue their education past primary school will also have a part-time job when in secondary school.

Some children completely abandon school and dedicate their time working, but some try to reconcile both school and a part-time job. In Cameroon, about 70% of students aged 12 to 14 were engaged in a labour intensive activity in 2001. From that time to 2011, the change observed was negligible. By contrast, the percentage of working students aged 12 to 14 fell from 80% to 47% over the same period in Togo. Likewise, in Senegal there was a decline in the proportion of students who worked, even as school participation increased. Work and education as a rule do not make a good pair. The hours children spend working will affect their performance in the classroom if they even manage to attend the classes[14].

Gender Equality in Education in Africa

Giving equal opportunities to children and young people regardless of their gender, is a goal of the education system in many countries. Africa has improved a lot in this matter, but taking the whole continent into account, girls are still at a disadvantage. For every 100 boys enrolled, there are only 92 girls in primary education and 84 girls in secondary education[15].

On a country-basis, in many Sub-Saharan countries girls have less access to education than boys. The World Economic Forum report about the Global Gender Gap encompassed 33 African countries. Between 2006 and 2013, 11 of these countries closed or greatly reduced the gap between the number of boys and girls enrolled in primary school. In another 11 countries, the number of girls surpassed that of the boys in primary school enrolment. Senegal had the highest, having 108 girls for every 100 boys in school. Angola and Chad occupy the lowest rank with only 77 girls for every 100 boys in primary school[16]. In Nigeria, for example, poor rural Hausa women aged between 17 and 22 average less than one year in school, while their wealthy, male, urban counterparts average more than nine years[17].

For higher levels of education – secondary and university – the results are more divisive. In most of the countries, secondary enrolment for girls dropped significantly compared to primary school. The shameful result Chad has in primary education, gets even worse on higher education enrolment: only 33 girls for every 100 boys attend high school[18].

This worrisome scenario affects even the countries with high GDP growth rates in the continent. Nigeria and Angola have, respectively, 77 and 81 girls for every 100 boys in high schools. This is a sign that economic growth by itself is not guarantee of inclusive higher education. Even the resource rich countries have to implement the right policies that will tackle education equality.

Literacy in Africa

Reaching 100% school enrolment does not mean much if the students pass through the school years, but at the end are not equipped with even the basic literacy and numeracy knowledge. Low literacy skills in adults are still prevalent in many African countries. Brookings, an American think tank, conducted research on the level of literacy in adults in Africa. In 2012, Africa had nearly 128 million school-aged children; from those, 17 million did not attend school. However, from the children who went to school regularly, 37 million of them did not learn near enough about what is considered basic education.

UNESCO considers literacy as the ability to ‘identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials’ associated with varied contexts. However, literacy is, at the end, a continuum of skills that enable individuals to achieve their goals in work and life and participate fully in society.

The research Brookings carried out encompassed 28 Sub-Saharan countries. In seven of them it was found that at least 40% of the children did not meet a minimum standard of learning by grades 4 or 5 (9 to 11 years old). This number gets worse, jumping to over 50% in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zambia. In these countries, the children had not learnt basic skills by the end of primary school.

Putting together the number of out-of-school children at the end of primary school, the number of children who are likely to drop out by the 5th grade and the number of children who do not achieve minimum literacy standards, the figure sums a staggering 61 million children who will reach adolescence without the basic skills needed to lead successful and productive lives[19]. However, this scenario is already an improvement from past levels. UNESCO calculated that from 1970 to 2000 the literacy levels in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 28% to 60%.

Disparities in learning achievement mirror wider inequalities in education. In Mozambique and South Africa, children from the poorest households are seven times more likely than those from the richest households to rank in the lowest 10% of students.

The literacy levels of the teacher themselves are shockingly low. The obvious question is how can a child learn if the teacher does not have the minimum knowledge to pass on? Studies in countries such as Lesotho, Mozambique and Uganda have found that fewer than half of teachers could score in the top band on a test designed for 12-year-olds. On top of that, teacher absenteeism is widespread across the continent[20].

Various factors influence the differences in literacy levels across countries. The extent of global political commitment, the effectiveness of literacy campaigns and programmes, the scope of attempts to promote mother tongue literacy programmes, and the influence of demand for literacy are considered the four main reasons by UNESCO’s Education for All 2015 report. The first three can be considered as measures that each government can undertake and spread through public programmes and through increasing the quality and quantity of teachers and schools. The last factor, a demand for literacy, is something that is gradually improved as a country develops economically and its industry becomes more complex.

Rwanda remains a bright spot among the chaos of most of the African countries. Growing investment in educators has resulted in an increase in the share of qualified teachers from 49% of the teaching force in 1999 to 98% in 2011.

Rwanda has also been pioneering an innovative computerized school book distribution system that puts schools in control. This new system, funded by the Global Partnership for Education and other development partners, increases accountability and removes obstacles that previously prevented learning materials from getting to Rwandan students.

Furthermore, Rwanda has improved tax collection, increasing the share of tax revenue as a proportion of GDP from 10% in 1998 to 13% in 2011, allowing the government to boost spending per primary school child from US$ 72 in 1999 to US$ 81 in 2011[21].

Private Schools in Africa

In recent years, private sector engagement in education, which includes a vibrant mix of for‐profit, non‐profit and faith‐based organizations, has grown significantly around the world. In the last two decades, the percentage of students in low‐income countries attending private primary schools doubled from 11% to 22%. The number of private schools across Africa for primary and secondary education also continues to rise. In a UNESCO survey of 25 African countries, the proportion of private primary schools increased from 9% to almost 10% between 2000 and 2008[22].

The private sector comes as an extra resource to help governments achieve the top goals of spreading primary and secondary education to all. Private schools add capacity to regions where the government cannot reach or where there is more demand for education than public schooling can meet.

There are many strategies that governments can implement to support private initiatives in education. In Senegal, the educational system comprises public schools, private schools, faith‐based schools, and community schools. Enrolments in private schools have increased steadily over the past decade. At the primary education level, enrolment in private schools have doubled, from 120,000 in 2000 to 250,000 in 2012. A similar trend has taken place in secondary education: private enrolments increased from 65,000 students in 2000 to 160,000 in 2012. In terms of total student figures, five times more students were attending private senior secondary schools in 2012 as compared to 1999.

However, as in most of the world, the price tag for a place in a private school is sometimes more than parents of low income can afford. In Senegal, private school tuition fees are significantly higher than those of public schools. For example, the tuition paid by students in the lowest‐cost private Catholic or secular junior secondary schools was almost 24 times higher than that paid by students in the most expensive public schools. The high fees raise questions of affordability for the poorest students. Only 8% of private secondary school students come from households whose expenditure per capita is below the national median[23].

Tanzania only provides a limited space for private schools. A non-state school is legally only allowed to provide education in technical fields. Consequently, the private sector mainly plays a role in secondary education, where its share is 17% of total student enrolments. At the primary level, the share of enrolments in non-state schools is negligible, between 1% and 2%. In this respect, Tanzania is very much the average Sub-Saharan African country – the average share of secondary private enrolments in the region is 18%[24].

The proportion of children attending private schools is extremely variable, ranging from a small percentage in Burundi, South Africa and Tanzania, to more than 30% in Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea and Mali in 2009. For secondary schools, the proportion of children attending private institutions surpasses 40% in Burkina Faso and Madagascar and reaches 50% in Liberia and Mauritius, in 2008.

In Africa, the largest proportion of private funding comes from households – students, families, individuals and community inputs. This expenditure comprises the payment of tuition fees, textbooks, school supplies and uniforms. In some countries, the proportion of private funding from households reach more than one-third of all education costs. That is the case in Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Madagascar and Sierra Leone. However, on the other extreme, in Rwanda and Zambia the household expenditure on education is very low.

The proportion of household spending in total education expenditure also varies across levels of education. In Sub-Saharan Africa, an average of 29.2% of primary education spending derives from households. This means that the household contribution is still significant, despite an ongoing trend of school fee abolition in primary education. This figure rises to 49% and 44%, respectively, for lower and upper secondary education. However, is goes down to 22% at tertiary level, which indicates high public subsidies to tertiary students[25].

Besides funding from households, NGOs and private organizations occupy an important share of private investment in education in Africa. Religious organizations most frequently finance the establishment and management of schools, while NGOs tend to work in local development and bring funding or resources in kind (construction materials, equipment, etc.) to the schools they support. NGOs receive funds from public or private donors and they may also serve as intermediaries in distributing funds from development agencies. In some countries, NGOs provide significant funding. In Benin, for example, they account for 5% of education expenditure.

Some private schools receive assistance or subsidies from the government, which can take a variety of forms – civil service teachers paid by the government and assigned to private schools (Chad), reimbursement for part of teacher salaries (Catholic schools in Mali that have a contract with the government), or operating grants (private schools in Cameroon). This assistance or financial support helps reduce the costs of schooling for families[26].

Curro in South Africa constitutes an innovative private sponsored venture in education. With the main goal of delivering affordable and high quality education from nursery to high school, Curro works as a company and develops, acquires and manages independent schools in South Africa. Currently, there are 48 schools with the Curro brand, but the target is to expand this figure to 80 by 2020, reaching a number of 80,000 students. The Curro schools enjoy a mix of standard education with sports, culture and religion and each class has a maximum of 35 students[27].

Curro’s business model targets low investment options and has a low operating cost. With this strategy the schools can offer tuition fees that are affordable to upper lower class and middle class income people in South Africa. Approximately 50% of the students pay an average between US$ 140 to US$ 280, but 30% pay less than that.

The business also targets teacher training, which is a smart strategy to increase the number of tutors and standardise their quality of teaching at high standards. This segment is operated by the Embury Institute[28], which educated 800 full-time teachers onsite and 100 on a distance learning scheme.

Curro’s success is palpable and can be seen through its 80% profit growth in 2015 and the price of its shares that, from its IPO in June 2011 to February 2016, increased by more than 310%[29]. A business model like Curro’s could certainly be replicated in other countries in Africa.


Education is at the core of what makes us a society. From generation to generation, knowledge is passed on, increased and improved upon. Technologies are perfected, innovations are created and our understanding of ourselves and of the universe is expanded. This is all achieved through education.

A country can only reach sustainable growth if its citizens have access to education. Through education people can develop the skills necessary to escape poverty, enjoy better health and participate in political processes that affect their lives. Although some countries in the continent considerably improved their education parameters in the last decade, Africa’s current state of education overall ranks very low in a global context. It undermines the potential of a whole generation of children and young people, reinforcing social divisions and damaging prospects for sustained and shared economic growth.

In an increasingly interconnected and knowledge-based global economy, today’s disparities in education are tomorrow’s inequalities in income, trade and investment. More than ever, the prosperity of nations hinges less on what countries have (their natural resource capital) and more on what their citizens are able to learn (their human capital). And what is true for countries is also true for people. Those denied an opportunity to develop their potential through education, face the prospects of marginalisation, poverty and insecure employment.

Africa needs to industrialise its economies to escape the problems associated with an overdependence on commodity exports. In addition, it wants to present itself as the factory of the world once China’s labour force becomes too expensive. It will compete against the likes of Vietnam and other ASEAN countries. It also has huge numbers of unemployed youth, which it must reduce for the sake of political and social stability. All these scenarios require an educated and well-trained labour force. This article shows Africa has its work cut out for itself should it want to improve the education of its youth. The reality is that it has no choice. The good news is that it can be done, as shown by the experience in Rwanda.

The author, Otavio Veras, is a Research Associate of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies, a trilateral platform for government, business and academia to promote knowledge and expertise on Africa, established by Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Business Federation. Otavio can be reached at

[1] GDP based on PPP per capita (IMF, Apr 2016)

[2] Construction of the First Mass Education Systems in 19th Century Europe (Yasemin Soysal and David Strang, 1989)

[3] The Worldwide Expansion of Higher Education in the Twentieth Century (Evan Schofer and John W. Meyer, 2005)

[4] Education for All 2000-2015: Achievements and Challenges (UNESCO, 2015)

[5] Statistic of the Month: The Importance of Pre-primary Education and Care (Center on International Education Benchmark, Sep 2014)

[6] Effective Pre-School and Primary Education 3-11 Project (Institute of Education University of London, Sep 2007)

[7] Education for All 2000-2015: Achievements and Challenges (UNESCO, 2015)

[8] Why wait 100 years? Bridging the Gap in Education (Brookings, Jun 2015)

[9] Education for All 2000-2015: Achievements and Challenges (UNESCO, 2015)

[10] Somalia’s Literary Lessons on Education (Africa Progress Panel, Jan 2013)

[11] Too Little Access, Not Enough Learning: Africa’s Twin Deficit in Education (Brookings, Jan 2013)

[12] Education for All 2000-2015: Achievements and Challenges (UNESCO, 2015)

[13] Africa: Education for Africa’s Children More Important Than Ever (UNESCO, Feb 2015)

[14] Africa: Education for Africa’s Children More Important Than Ever (UNESCO, Feb 2015)

[15] Africa: Education for Africa’s Children More Important Than Ever (UNESCO, Feb 2015)

[16] The Global Gender Gap Report (World Economic Forum, 2014)

[17] Somalia’s Literary Lessons on Education (Africa Progress Panel, Jan 2013)

[18] The Global Gender Gap Report (World Economic Forum, 2014)

[19] Africa’s Education Crisis: In School but Not Learning (Brookings, Sep 2012)

[20] Too Little Access, Not Enough Learning: Africa’s Twin Deficit in Education (Brookings, Jan 2013)

[21] Africa: Education for Africa’s Children More Important Than Ever (UNESCO, Feb 2015)

[22] State of Education in Africa Report 2015 (The Africa-America Institute, 2015)

[23] Engaging the Private Sector in Education (World Bank Group, SABER Country Report, Senegal, 2016)

[24] Engaging the Private Sector in Education (World Bank Group, SABER Country Report, Tanzania, 2015)

[25] Financing Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNESCO, Institute for Statistics, 2011)

[26] Financing Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNESCO, Institute for Statistics, 2011)

[27] Curro website

[28] Embury Institute for Teacher Education website

[29] Curro plans on R1bn to expand (IOL, Feb 2016)

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